Ring Architect 5.12.14: New York Strike Exchange
Posted by Obi Justice on 05.12.2014
Obi Justice delves into the world of kayfabe to ask why anyone would stand by and let themselves get hit. One man's opinion on the puroresu special: trading elbows, punches, and chops, oh my!
"Ring Architect" is a format I've come up with to break down wrestling topics. The 20' x 20' is the main idea that I'll be talking about in the column. Red Corner/Blue Corner are two opposing takes on it that I see. Of course, it'll just be my thoughts on it, so I'll leave it to you guys in the comments to see how valid they are. And the last bit, the Main Strands, are three key pieces of information that I think should be kept in mind when considering the topic. Spare Parts is just a quick summary. The format'll definitely help me sort out my thoughts and hopefully it makes things easy for you guys to read.
The whole deal, the main idea.
Wrestling is at its best when I get sucked into it. I know very well, as should everybody by this point, that wrestling is staged. The thing is that while I'm aware of that, the magic isn't all there. It all revolves around certain moments hooking me in so that I'm just following what's happening on the screen or in the ring in front of me. For action movies and film media in general, effects can do a lot of that work, so you can buy into something unreal like the Terminator flashing back into the past or Gollum existing. With pro wrestling, it needs to go the other way. Since any effect is going to look pretty hokey live, wrestling really relies on appearing as real as possible so that you forgive (consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously) the hinges that might break the illusion.
One of the things I'm hoping to do with Ring Architect is talk about stories in wrestling, and a big part of that is how the wrestling world reacts to itself. A lot of times stories are discussed in terms of what sort of shine they give to one guy or if they'll hook people in. There's not a ton of time spent on little details, and especially on things that don't make sense at first glance. Think of things like Highlanders (from the Highlander franchise) never fighting in sancutaries even when it would benefit them or Spiderman swinging off the top of the screen. It's easy to go along with them once or twice, but when you're expected to believe it week after week, those little issues get bigger.
So with that in mind, I'm going to put my kayfabe cap on and talk about something that's always bugged me: strike exchanges.
Fans of Japanese wrestling and American independents will be pretty familiar with these, I think. Samoa Joe and Kenta Kobashi trading chops is a legendary ROH moment. Two guys standing toe to toe, blasting each other with everything they can muster. A lot of times, they even call out for the next hit. It's not something you see in any other fighting sport, not like in wrestling. In mixed martial arts and in boxing, the object is always to stay away from as many hits as possible. If you're going in to strike you try and strike hard and get out of range. And, of course, if you fail to do that, you'll probably eat a knockout and get a nice view of the ceiling for your trouble.
So why not the same thing in wrestling? Because it's fake, duh! There are two basic reasons. Number one is because the main goal in wrestling is to pin your opponent. Number two is because it's really hard to knock someone out (or to make them submit). Simply put, it's much easier to get a pinfall than to knock someone out. It might not seem that way at first, but in a boxing match both guys are looking for that heavy hit and both are defending. In a wrestling strike exchange, they take relatively safe hits while purposefully leaving their guard down. But like the US/Soviet mutually assured destruction, if one guy starts going for the jugular, both will. The fact that both guys sort of agree to hit each other seems weird at first but it does make a kind of sense, and it could even be used tactically. Strike exchanges can get tedious but they show changing advantage, and at the same time they soften up the opponent to set up for a pinfall.
Red corner is pro. Blue corner is con.
RED CORNER: Strike exchanges are a great tactical move if you've got a size advantage or you want to stop the other guy short. One thing you don't want to do is get in a trade-off with a guy like Mark Henry. Blow-for-blow, Henry is stronger than just about anybody else, and he'll chop down the redwood pretty damn quick. A guy like Sheamus standing up against him can hold his own for a bit but if they keep to that static position, the World's Strongest Man takes it every time. The thing is, whereas Rey Rey might try a different tactic, Sheamus (and guys like Cena, Orton, etc.) would definitely stand toe-to-toe and come out worse for it. Unlike a hit like Big Show's KO punch, trading in a strike exchange wears down a lot more gradually and that's the real killer. Ultimately, those one-hits aren't too common, but getting progressively beat down until you can't fight back is the name of the game.
The main thing about having a major power game is that momentum is usually not your friend. When the other guy is really moving, though, a strike exchange definitely helps to bring the game back down to earth. Look back at Raw when Daniel Bryan squared off with Alberto Del Rio. After Del Rio had basically taken full control, Bryan managed take Del Rio down, then worked a strike exchange to prevent Del Rio from getting out of the blocks while he got his breath back. In that case, Bryan was at a disadvantage sizewise, but what he got out of it was preventing Del Rio from using his greater reserve energy. When used like that, it makes the wrestler seem very intelligent. Even when the detail itself isn't appreciated, that level of depth in a character will certainly shine in other places.
BLUE CORNER: Avoid trading strikes when you're at a size disadvantage, if you rely on quickness, or if you're injured. By all those criteria, Bryan made a bad move by exchanging with Del Rio, and he definitely had those factors working against him. The thing is that Bryan is a special case. He knows the ins and outs of the wrestling game and that's what he used to get over Del Rio. At the same time, it's not like Bryan really got off scot free from it. He stopped Del Rio up for a bit but not enough to take a really firm hold of the match. One of the things that strike exchanges are best at setting up is the big power move. I think most of us who have watched a lot of WWE will be familiar with Kane shutting up his opponent's barrage with the throttle and the chokeslam. On the flip side, a guy stunning his opponent with rights and hitting the ropes only to get turned inside out with the clothesline is all too common.
You really don't want to give your opponent any space when following up on a strike exchange. Think about it: if they were well enough to let you hit them and hit you back, how much time do they need to hit something big? Being at a size disadvantage and flying attacks both mean getting some distance before making an attack, and any tiny bit of breathing room could be fatal. As for being injured, that might just sound like general advice to be careful when injured, but that target glows even brighter while trading hits. The thing is, once you're in the exchange the first thing you want to do is get out and hopefully with you in the driver's seat. When you're in trouble, you cast about for any way to help yourself, and that's just going to make your opponent smell blood in the water. Each round is another chance for them to strike at that injury. Not only that, most likely you'll need a running or jumping start to do much damage with an injured limb.
Important lines of thought.
TOP ROPE: Pride leads men (and women) to make mistakes. A crafty wrestler can definitely use an opponent's pride to goad them into an unwise strike exchange. This is definitely something you'll see more in Japan. When you've got something to prove you're always vulnerable to cheap tricks. At the same time, just because you started it doesn't mean you're immune. At NJPW Wrestling Dontaku, Tomoaki Honma goaded his opponent Tomohiro Ishii into a strike battle, but when Ishii showed that he clearly wasn't going down, that just made Honma keep up the fight until he was finally chopped down for his insolence. The thing about pride is that you never know just when it's going to flare up, especially in the heat of battle.
MIDDLE ROPE: It's important to know how to get the upper hand. A lot of strike exchanges just come down to who can knock the other guy down first, that's true. However, some technical knowhow never goes amiss. I prefer to see wrestlers who don't just blindly fight their way forward but use situations to set up advantageous positions. Plus, when you have that know-how, it's not quite so bad to be outsized or outpowered compared to your opponent. Holds have always been the great equalizer in pro wrestling, as Daniel Bryan can attest to. Just because things start out as a chop battle doesn't mean a roll-up can't sew things up neatly.
BOTTOM ROPE: Toughness is everything. It's probably the most common-sense thing to remember about trading blows but it's vital. No matter how big you are or how strong you are, it's how tough you are that makes the real difference. The more you can withstand, the more time you've got to put something together, and the better you'll be if you get the space to hit some kind of counter. Most wrestlers don't need to be tough in the sense of standing up and taking hit after hit. Rey Mysterio is tough, there's no doubt about that, but I've always thought his toughness was more mental than physical. If they just have Rey getting hit over and over, I'm not sure how well he'd stand up. He was good at finding that one finesse way through despite everything looking grim. Daniel Bryan, on the other hand, has always seemed to be extraordinarily tough, as if his size is no bearing on how much punishment he could take.
All that's left to say.
Taking my kayfabe cap off, I've always been interested in the details like this, especially when I think they could be a useful device. A lot of times, these match elements get reduced to being just spots. Personally, I am a bit bored with strike exchanges, but they can definitely be exciting. In WWE they've fallen a bit out of use and I think that's good, but WWE is also really bad about their transitions, so on balance it's not great. It might be a bit goofy to look at strike exchanges as if it's a real thing, but to me, if we accept it in wrestling then it should make some sort of sense within the genre. After all, unlike Spiderman, you can actually go be a pro wrestler if you want. It is a real thing.